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American dream or American nightmare?

Jimmy Stewart and Lionel Barrymore in It's a Beautiful LifeBest Xmas movie ever or Communist propaganda? A thank you to 21CenturyManifesto for reminding us that It’s a Beautiful Life starring Jimmy Stewart and Lionel Barrymore, now Britain’s favourite Christmas movie according to a poll for the Radio Times, was regarded as Communist propaganda by the FBI at the time.

In a reverse of the Christmas Carol theme, Frank Capra’s wonderful 1946 movie – a financial flop at the time – takes the thoroughly good but suicidal George Bailey, played by Jimmy Stewart, and with the intervention of his guardian angel (second class) restores his faith in himself by revealing how much worse his world would have been without him.

Sentimental it may be, but watching it again (which you can do here) was as pleasurable and moving as ever. Evil banker Henry F. Potter is as odious as ever in the role a 1947 FBI report said “represented a rather obvious attempt to discredit bankers by casting Lionel Barrymore as ‘scrooge-type’ so that he would be the most hated man in the picture.” These days, bankers don’t need much discrediting.

Rich Cohen, on the other hand, believes that “underneath the warm fuzzies, Frank Capra’s holiday classic is a tale of hunger, greed and a troubled America” and even “the most terrifying movie” ever:

If you were to cut “It’s a Wonderful Life” by 20 minutes, its true subject would be revealed: In this shortened version, George Bailey, played by a Jimmy Stewart forever on the edge of hysteria, after being betrayed by nearly everyone in his life, after being broken on the wheel of capitalism, flees to the outskirts of town, Bedford Falls, N.Y., where he leaps off a bridge with thoughts of suicide.

That’s the movie: The good man driven insane.

This would remove the ‘alternative world’ sequence in which the community solidarity which established itself in ‘real-life” Bedford Falls during the depression is replaced by the unbridled selfishness and greed of ‘Potterville’. Ending the film early would force the audience to realise that Potterville was where they all really lived.

But Cohen also argues that the film as you can see it now retains this sombre message:

The story of the George Bailey who is honored and saved remains. It’s the explicit message of the final scene: A man with friends is never poor. But another, deeper message is there, too — it’s Capra wailing at that secret register picked up by bats and dogs, saying, “Help, help, America is in trouble!”

The American dream coexists with the American nightmare in the movie as it does in life. He has a point, there are indeed signs that George Bailey has seen the light (and the horrible darkness), but how many of the audience will have noticed? Especially at Christmas. I’d like to see the shorter movie.

One Comment

  1. Jon Lansman says:

    Since writing this, I am grateful to Shiraz Socialist for drawing my attention to the Jimmy Kimmel version of a Fox News trailer for It’s a Beautiful Life (it starts at 2:12):

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